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Nuclear Fatwa Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy

T h e p o l iti c a l d o ctr i n e s and religious ideologies of the Islamic Republic of Iran play a major role in shaping the country’s approach to many issues, including its nuclear program. The two essays in this publication show how these factors are likely to […]

  • Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
  • Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • 2011
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Nuclear Fatwa Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy
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    T h e p o l iti c a l d o ctr i n e s and religious ideologies of the Islamic Republic of Iran play a major role in shaping the country’s approach to many issues, including its nuclear program. The two essays in this publication show how these factors are likely to inform Iranian nuclear decisionmaking. Michael Eisenstadt’s essay examines the regime’s doctrine of expediency, which has guided Iranian decisionmaking since the mid-to-late 1980s. He highlights the growing tension between this doctrine, which has generally led the Islamic Republic to act in a circumspect manner while pursuing an anti–status quo foreign policy, and the increasingly influential but less flexible doctrines of resistance (embraced by a new generation of hardline Iranian politicians) and politicized messianic Shia Islam (embraced by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and some of his supporters) as applied to Iranian behavior and nuclear decisionmaking. Mehdi Khalaji’s essay looks at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa proscribing the development, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons, against the background of traditional Islamic attitudes toward weapons of mass destruction and Shiite attitudes toward dissimulation and deception, and considers how these factors have been dealt with by the Expediency Council, which is responsible for advising the Supreme Leader on matters of national policy and resolving legislative issues. The author demonstrates how decisions in the Islamic Republic on these and other matters are grounded not in Islamic law but rather in the regime’s doctrine of expediency, as interpreted by the Supreme Leader. Both essays conclude that if the Islamic Republic’s leaders believe that developing, stockpiling, or using nuclear weapons is in its interests, then religious considerations will not constrain these actions. Past proclamations about the matter, like all fatwas issued by Shiite clerics, can be revised under new circumstances. And while the Islamic Republic has repeatedly put the interests of the regime ahead of religious principles, the growing role played by the doctrines of resistance and politicized messianic Shia Islam may well increase the propensity of decisionmakers to act in an assertive manner. Such assertiveness holds the attendant potential for miscalculation and overreach, thereby complicating efforts by the United States and its partners to deter and contain a nuclear Iran.

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    • Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
    • Washington Institute for Near East Policy
    • 2011
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